Sticky Notes of Thoughts

…because some thoughts are worth remembering

On Concept Vocabulary: Purple Squirrel


One metric of the development of a unique culture can be the vocabulary its community creates or existing terms that take on new meaning. We’ve heard many come out of Silicon Valley: unicorns to refer to startups valued over a billion dollars (such as Uber, Pinterest, and AirBnB), use of specific nouns as adjectives to mean super (such as ninja and rockstar programmer) because the word uber is more a proper noun.

I like the term “purple squirrel” which already shifted its meaning or usage somewhat. Because purple squirrels are a rarity, the term is used by recruiters to describe a candidate with precisely the right education, experience, and qualifications that perfectly fits a job’s multifaceted requirements. I have heard it used as a criticism of hiring managers who have set such detailed and specific qualification requirements that no candidate can fit the bill. Other times, I’ve read articles that described recruiters’ frustration when their clients turn down what the recruiters thought were perfect candidates (see Urban Dictionary’s article).

The term brings to light an aspect of the hiring practices of Silicon Valley. To the world, it is the center of innovation, and it is. But its output should not be confused with how they approach in producing that output. Even though I have conducted business in Silicon Valley, it wasn’t until I actually moved here that I began to understand the nuance of its culture.

While Silicon Valley being a one-trick-town, is a big part of it, it is more than that. When you get good at pumping out your product, you have figured out a system to maximize yield. When you systemize something, you are a factory vs. an atelier. When you have fine-tuned your factory, and you need to replace a cog, you find exactly the shape of the cog that used to be there, because you know it will work.

Conservatism is not a word one would associate with innovation, but when you optimized your infrastructure and ecosystem for that output, there is no need to be innovative about producing innovation. When I started job hunting in the Bay Area, a wise executive (who had a monumental responsibility to lay off the company’s workforce from all over the world after a massive reorg, only to have to lay herself off when the dirty deed was done) relayed to me that I will probably hear the recruiters and hiring managers swear up and down that “for this position, we are looking outside the box”. “They might even believe that, but in the end, what actually happens is that they will end up hiring someone with the same job title they are recruiting for from their competitor” because that’s what they know would work.

When shared with me the biases of Silicon Valley, that “the culture here is that of youth, software engineers, white, and male”, it didn’t seem like news to me. Although one could associate the word innovation with being progressive, and tech leaders supporting (mostly) liberal political agenda, both overt and subtle sexism exist at multiple levels (individuals, corporate, industry culture).

Smart and talented software engineers I know think twice about their friends letting the waiter know it’s his 50th birthday, because that’s not a thing you advertise in Silicon Valley, just in case “people in the biz” might be dining at the same restaurant (and in Silicon Valley, there is always “people in the biz” buzzing about).

Project, program and product managers are often required to have software engineering background, even though actual coding is not part of the job. If the product is software, why trust a non-software engineer to manage it?

Yes, there are plenty of non-white employees working at unicorns. But it’s clear that the white male culture is the norm and everyone is expected to assimilate. It may sound harsh and I’ve gotten confused reactions not only from white men but from women as well. The intrinsic biases and the subsequent actions have been so dominant that it is assumed as acceptable norm, and to even bring up the conversation categorizes you as a wet blanket.

One day, I went to an entrepreneur luncheon. More formal than a geek meetup, the banquet room had tables lined with linen. In attendance were entrepreneurs, service providers and some investors. I couldn’t figure out why I felt so uncomfortable in the room when I’m used to being the only woman, then I realized all the guests in the room were pretty much white, with some Asians mixed in, while all the servers were Hispanic. When I told my (white) friends later that the luncheon made me felt uncomfortable, their first reaction was to doubt the fact and offer counter examples of situations to suggest that Silicon Valley was racially diverse. When did simply having Hispanic folks working in the same space, mean the community was diverse, if one side is getting paid minimum wages (or below, living on tips) and the other side so privileged they choose to debate what I felt?

I am hopeful, however. As long as innovation remains the product of Silicon Valley, we can hope, because innovation feeds on diversity of ideas that come from diversity of people from diverse socio-economic and ethnic backgrounds. Silicon Valley’s long standing financial and educational model has been challenged a few times, with accelerators providing funding and mentors offering inexpensive alternative to MBAs. South Peninsula’s founders have now cashed out and started experimenting with other ways of “organizing work” and reframing the corporate infrastructure.

One of my VC friends mentioned that it is not a coincidence how new ideas (like the sharing economy, whether you are a fan of it or not) are coming out of Oakland and other surrounding areas rather than from the heart of Silicon Valley. There are accelerators targeted to people with specific socio-economic backgrounds. Women entrepreneur advocates are no longer only advocating and mentoring but sponsoring, putting money where their mouth is, investing in women-owned or operated enterprises.

Why am I hopeful? Because at first a few people do it because it’s the right thing to do and that diversity yields more innovation (as research has shown*), and more importantly to the masses, it results in a more lucrative outcome. At the end of the day in Silicon Valley, money does talk.

In the meantime, celebrate the purple squirrel. It’s a good first step to the more innovative Silicon Valley.

Photo: Statue of Yoda at Industry Light and Magic headquarters in Presidio, San Francisco, CA


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